Halfway next time by with return to DIS

Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway marks the halfway point in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

Race No. 18 takes teams back to where the season began in February. Only nine races remain in the regular season.

It’s a good time to stop and take stock of what’s transpired thus far.

Talk of the 2019 aero/rules package has often overshadowed the competition on the race track. That’s not unusual. It’s simply more noticeable in today’s social-media driven world.

While the aero changes haven’t been to everyone’s liking, that’s hardly any different from seasons past.

Because there are different packages for different tracks, it’s natural that it would be a topic of discussion as the season progressed.

Overall, it seems to have improved the product on the track. But it’s clear that the platform works better at some tracks, under some conditions (night vs. day races for example), than others.

The number of teams winning races hasn’t changed all that much, only the teams themselves. Three organizations (Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports) have produced this year’s race winners – all seven of them.

A year ago? Five organizations, four if you aligned the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing with JGR, which most did, and six different winners.

Who wins first in ‘19, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson or a team from the Stewart-Haas Racing stable?

The odds would seem to favor SHR, which fields four Cup teams. Drivers Kevin Harvick (8), Clint Bowyer (2) and Aric Almirola (1) combined for 11 victories last season; the organization is 0-for-68 so far in ’19.

 Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports) heads to Daytona trailed by a 76-race winless streak. He did win the season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash at DIS, a non-points event.

NASCAR’s tougher post-race penalty move hasn’t cost any Cup drivers a win, although two drivers in other series have been disqualified when their entries failed post-race inspection.

Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Ross Chastain was stripped of the victory at Iowa while Christopher Bell lost his third-place finish in the Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Single-car qualifying returned in early May after months of issues with the multi-car process. At Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) in March, none of the 12 final-round participants completed an official qualifying lap before time expired. In April, officials reduced the time of each qualifying round to five minutes.

Sweeps: Denny Hamlin led a Joe Gibbs Racing/Toyota sweep in the season-opening Daytona 500 as Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finished second and third respectively;

Team Penske finished 1-2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with defending series champion Joey Logano winning over teammate Brad Keselowski in a battle of Fords;

Busch and Martin Truex went 1-2 at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., then reversed their order at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway when Truex scored the victory;

Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman finished 1-2 in the Geico 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

First-time winners: Bowman became the 192nd driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race with his first career victory June 30 at Chicagoland. It’s the fourth consecutive season the series has seen at least one new Cup winner. Austin Hill (NGOTS) and Michael Annett (Xfinity) earned their first NASCAR series wins as well, both at Daytona in February.

Equally notable: Christopher Bell gave Toyota its first win with the Supra in the Xfinity Series at Atlanta; Keselowski’s victory the same weekend was No. 1 for the Ford Mustang in Cup competition.

Kyle Busch hit a couple of milestones during the first half of the ’19 season – his became the winningest driver in the Truck series when he scored win No. 52 at Atlanta; his Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) gave him 200 wins across NASCAR’s three national series (Cup, Xfinity, Truck).

Rules package passes Charlotte test

Wrapping up Sunday’s 60th running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway:

A four-wide pass for the lead on the backstretch with less than five laps remaining is something you don’t see very often in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, at Charlotte Motor Speedway or anywhere else for that matter.

But that’s what happened during Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 when Martin Truex Jr. jumped to the inside of Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and David Ragan on the backstretch to grab the lead and eventually the win.

It was that kind of race. It was entertaining, pretty much from start to finish.

And that’s a big deal.

There’s been a lot of talk about how bad the racing has been in NASCAR, what officials should be doing to make it better and why the sport isn’t as popular as it was at one time.

But Sunday’s race at CMS showed that the 2019 rules package, developed specifically for the 1.5-mile tracks on the Cup schedule, is moving the series in the right direction.

It’s not the entire answer and honestly, with teams continuing to develop setups and finding new ways to improve performance, there never will be a “perfect” set of rules.

The ’19 package has provided better racing though, and that’s not just based on the Charlotte race. Go back a couple of weeks to Kansas, another 1.5-mile track. A good, competitive race. The mile-and-a-half at Texas? Not a lot of lead changes there, but it was an improvement with lots of movement throughout the field.

It’s not a perfect package for every layout, perhaps not even for every 1.5-mile track, but with teams still learning how to work within the box, it’s definitely an improvement.

“It’s still difficult in traffic,” Truex Jr., said after winning for the third time this season. “They drive awful in traffic, to be honest, and I don’t know how we fix that.”

Maybe, though, there’s nothing that needs fixing for a change. Based on Sunday’s race, I’d say there are a fair amount of folks who feel that way, too.

When Truex Jr., won the race for the second time Sunday evening, he joined a talented group of drivers who have multiple victories in the crown jewel event.

A talented group but a growing one as well. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex Jr., became the 14th driver to win at least twice in the series’ longest event.

Three-time series champion and NASCAR Hall of Fame member Darrell Waltrip holds the most 600 wins, scoring five during his career. Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports) has four while Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon Buddy Baker, David Pearson and Kasey Kahne won the 600 on three occasions.

Two-time winners include Richard Petty, Fred Lorenzen, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Neil Bonnett and Jim Paschal.

Truex Jr., is the third driver to win three times this year, joining JGR teammate Kyle Busch and Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski. Combined with Denny Hamlin’s two victories, JGR drivers have won eight of this year’s 13 points races.

Career win No. 22 for Truex Jr., places him in a three-way tie with Hall of Famer Terry Labonte and Team Penske driver Joey Logano at No. 35 on NASCAR’s all-time win list. Next up with 23 career wins is Ricky Rudd.

Crew chief Cole Pearn now has 20 Cup wins after 156 races and a little less than four and a half seasons with Truex Jr. That’s similar to the success of Ray Evernham, who got to 20 wins with Jeff Gordon in little more than four seasons and 124 starts. Chad Knaus reached 20 wins with Jimmie Johnson in barely four years.

It took Dale Inman less than three full seasons to accumulate 20 wins with Richard Petty in the early 1960s, hitting win No. 20 in their 105th start together.

According to seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, “There were three or four big items that were different on our car this week than we’ve been running all year long, so we’re very happy about that.”

Johnson finished eighth Sunday and called it “a good night.” Although he led no laps, he ran anywhere from eighth to 15th much of the race and was inside the top 10 after falling back as far as 17th early in the final stage.

“We’re just trying to go from good to great and that isn’t easy,” Johnson said.

All four Hendrick cars finished in the top 10 – Chase Elliott led 43 laps and finished fourth while Alex Bowman, Johnson and pole winner William Byron finished seventh through ninth, respectively.

It’s the first time this season the organization has had all four teams finish inside the top 10 and the third consecutive race at least three have managed the feat.

Johnson: Midseason move key to season

Jimmie Johnson’s 2019 paint scheme for the May 26th running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

CONCORD, N.C. – Jimmie Johnson says he’s a patient person, but he admits it’s getting tougher as the weeks roll on and the months begin to stack up and when you stop to catch your breath you suddenly realize an entire third of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has come and gone.

“Over my career I’ve been able to … just let things work themselves out,” Johnson, 43, said Tuesday during a paint scheme unveil of his No. 48 Chevrolet for the May 26th Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“There are two factors leading to my impatience now. One is I haven’t won in a couple of years and two is, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in a couple of years. My contract’s up in 2020 and I’ll have to evaluate what I want to do after that.”

It’s an honest conversation but an unusual one just the same.

The backdrop behind Johnson is impressive and when you look over his shoulder you see his name again and again and again.

Listed on the wall inside the Hendrick Motorsports team center are the races and winner’s names of every HMS points victory in NASCAR’s Cup Series. All 253 of them.

Legendary races at legendary tracks are separated from the others. The Daytona 500, Darlington’s Southern 500, Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 and The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

Eighty-three of the victories belong to the El Cajon, Calif., native, including a dozen of those “crown jewel” races.

But we’re not taking about NASCAR’s grand slam at the moment. We’re talking about last Saturday night’s race at Kansas. And not winning. And why Johnson isn’t and what he and his team are doing about it.

The season is hustling by and the sport’s only active seven-time champion finished sixth at Kanas just days ago. It’s been 71 races since his last victory.

For much of his career, a sixth-place finish would hardly seem noteworthy for Johnson. But the fact that it’s his second-best result of the 12 races run thus far says much.

“It’s flying by quick and we haven’t been in contention to win a race yet this year,” he said. “We’ve got to fix that.

“If I’m not in contention to win a race, there’s no chance of winning a championship. For me, right now this middle portion of the season is the key for me to get things where they need to be so we can win races and ultimately win a championship.”

His Hendrick teammates are making headway and garnering attention – Chase Elliott won at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway last month to secure a spot in the playoffs and Alex Bowman is riding a career-best string of three consecutive runner-up finishes.

Meanwhile Johnson and William Byron have shown some improvement but less speed and consistency.

As for Kansas, Johnson said his team knew as soon as the No. 48 was unloaded “that we were down on speed to our teammates.”

“We made some (decisions) to race better and try not to pay attention about single-car speed a lot like you would see at a restrictor-plate track,” he said.

“So Friday we’re trying not to overreact, we’re just hoping that it would race better. Then when I got in the race, the first half of the race was so bad for us, I was like ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ We didn’t have the raw speed and didn’t have the better car in traffic.

“I have to give Kevin (Meendering, crew chief) a ton of credit. Once (I voiced) my displeasure in the car, he made some killer decisions. Our pit stops were awesome on pit road, those guys rallied around, we had a great second half of the race and finished sixth.

“We know what’s making speed within our company. We just need to figure out how to put those pieces into our car … with our philosophy.”

Johnson will be going after a fifth win in the Cup series all-star race, slated for Saturday night at CMS, as well as fifth win in the 600.

“Winning on either weekend would be really special and significant for us on the 48 car,” he said. “My All-Star wins mean a ton to me and obviously that big cash prize that’s out there (the winner’s purse is $1 million) is very tempting.

“The 600 is such a test of driver and machine, strategy … the challenge we have to face I guess ultimately in the 600 is just insane. Those victories mean a ton to me. It’s hard to believe I’ve won as many as I have.”

As part of the NASCAR Salutes initiative held in conjunction with the race, Johnson will carry the name of Army Sgt. Richard Donlan on his during the Coca-Cola 600.

The announcement was part of Tuesday’s paint scheme reveal for the All-sponsored Chevrolet.

“It’s just such an honor,” Johnson said. “Times like this put it all in perspective. … Our sport just does an amazing job of being active and involved. I’m one of 40 lucky drivers that get to carry a name on the car and to honor that fallen soldier.”

All-Star race likely aero package preview

Clearing off the desk with spring break around the corner:

Charlotte Motor Speedway will once again be the 1.5-mile NASCAR version of a laboratory as officials announced the details of an updated aerodynamic package to be used in the 85-lap test case otherwise known as the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race.

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell and Speedway Motorsports, Inc., president Marcus Smith unveiled the particulars for this year’s non-points exhibition race Wednesday evening on the Fox Sports program “RaceHub.”

On the technical side, the updates consist of a radiator duct that will direct air flow from the engine compartment out through the hood and a one-piece splitter/radiator pan made of carbon fiber.

The purpose of the first is to address aero issues while also helping reduce engine temperatures; the purpose of the second is to provide help in the area of ride height sensitivity.

The ’19 race will be five laps longer than the ’18 version, and will consist of four stages of 30, 20, 20 and 15 laps.

The race winner will collect $1 million.

Changes to the aerodynamic package first put into play in the ’18 all-star race became the basis for the current ’19 aero package. Should these changes produce the desired effect, it’s likely a version of the package will be incorporated into the rules platform for the Generation 7 car scheduled for a 2021 rollout.

While a restrictor plate was used in the ’18 race, tapered spacers became part of the ’19 package. Both devices restrict air flow into the engine.

“Last year’s all-star rules package resulted in one of the most exciting all-star races in history,” O’Donnell said in a news release. “With a similar package and added elements that we could see in the next generation race car, we expect another must-watch event.”

Qualifying for the all-star race is scheduled for Friday, May 17.

Three segment winners from Saturday’s 50-lap Monster Energy Open (20-20-10 laps) will advance to the All-Star Race. A fourth driver will advance via fan vote.

Green and yellow flag laps will count in the first three stages; only green-flag laps will count in the final segment.

Drivers who have already earned a berth in the All-Star race (as a 2018-19 race winner, previous All-Star Race winner or former series champion): Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Ford), Ryan Blaney (Team Penske No. 12 Ford), Clint Bowyer (SHR No. 14 Ford), Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet), Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota), Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet), Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet), Denny Hamlin (JGR No. 11 Toyota), Kevin Harvick (SHR No. 4 Ford), Jimmie Johnson (HMS No. 48 Chevrolet), Erik Jones (JGR No. 20 Toyota), Brad Keselowski (Team Penske No. 2 Ford), Joey Logano (Team Penske No. 22 Ford), Ryan Newman (Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford) and Martin Truex Jr. (JGR No. 19 Toyota).

Talk of the need for more short tracks (and road courses) sent some folks to the archives …

Modern Era (1972-): The high-water mark for short tracks during the modern era came began in 1973 and ran through ’84 when there were 10 short-track races at five venues each year.

In ’73, the 10 races were part of a 28-race schedule; the tracks hosting two Cup races each season were Bristol, North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Richmond and Nashville.

In ’85, the number of short-track races fell to eight when Nashville came off the schedule.

By ’97 the number had dropped to six, where it remains today, when North Wilkesboro was no longer hosting Cup races.

Prior to 1972, the number of short-track races fluctuated. In 1964 when the schedule consisted of 62 races, 48 were contested on tracks less than 1 mile in length.

As far as adding short tracks going forward, until the current five-year sanctioning agreements end (after 2020) there won’t be any changes in venues.

An off week means Christopher Bell might go more than seven days without being asked when he will exit the Xfinity Series for Cup competition. It’s been one of this year’s early storylines and it’s a legitimate item of interest since the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has the tools and the talent to compete at the Cup level.

He has 10 wins in the Xfinity Series, including two this season.

“That’s not really for me to decide,” Bell said at Bristol, where he pocketed a $100,000 bonus for winning the first of this season’s Dash 4 Cash events. “I just wait until they tell me where I’m landing.”

JGR fields four Cup teams with drivers Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr. It also fields Xfinity series entries for Bell, Brandon Jones and a third for various drivers.

Exactly where Bell, 23, might land in a move to Cup isn’t known. Besides JGR’s four Cup entries, Toyota is also aligned with Leavine Family Racing.

Two other organizations field Toyotas but are not competing fulltime – Gaunt Brothers Racing and Motorsports Business Management.

JGR owner Joe Gibbs has said that Bell “has a place with us long-term,” as does Jones.

“That’s our goal; that’s what we’ll keep working on,” said Gibbs.

Bell said he hopes to continue to race outside of NASCAR when the opportunity allows. Even before he won the Bristol bonus, he said the six-figure windfall could become seed money for his own racing efforts.

“I think my ultimate dream, short term, is to have a sprint car for me to go race whenever I can … and then long-term I’d like to have a team that maybe runs the World of Outlaws or maybe just has a true outlaw schedule,” he said.

Could he focus just on NASCAR? Sure. Just don’t ask him to. He’s been racing some sort of open-wheel machine since he was six years old.

“It would be very, very difficult,” Bell said. “It’s been my life.”

Bell isn’t eligible for round No. 3 of the Dash 4 Cash bonus after finishing 16th last weekend at Richmond. Cole Custer, Austin Cindric, Justin Allgaier and Tyler Reddick will be competing for the bonus when the program resumes at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway April 27.

In case you were wondering: Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson ran his first marathon Monday, completing the Boston Marathon in 3 hr., 9 min. 7 sec.

Johnson began his NASCAR Cup career in 2001 and since that time, there hasn’t been one Cup points race that lasted exactly 3:09.07.

A couple have been close.

Coming in just six seconds shy was the 2009 Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3:09.01). Mark Martin was the race winner and Johnson finished fourth.

The time of race for the 2004 Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a shade longer – 3:09.15. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race; Johnson finished fourth, again.

There was also the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond Raceway (Sept. 8, 2001), a race that lasted 3:09.11. But Johnson made only three starts that season, and Richmond wasn’t one of the three.


That’s a lot of lead changes

Sunday, April 17, 2011 – Jimmie Johnson passed Jeff Gordon for the 88th lead change, tying a series record, on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. There had also been 88 lead changes the previous year at Talladega.

Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick finished first through fifth. It was Johnson’s 54th career victory in NASCAR’s premier series.

There were five lead changes in the final five laps of the 188-lap race with Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Edwards, Gordon and Johnson moving to the point.

Twenty-six of the 43 drivers in the starting lineup led at least one lap. Bowyer led the most at 38.

At 2.66 miles, Talladega is the longest track on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

Texas Postscript

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said Monday morning that the sanctioning body may revert back to single-car qualifying for some events after problems cropped up at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday.  

“If we have to go back to single-car (qualifying) … we’ll do that,” O’Donnell said during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR’s “The Morning Drive” program. “It won’t be popular, probably, with some of the owners but unfortunately we’re getting put in this position.”

Group qualifying had not been an issue until the 2019 rules package debuted with its less horsepower and more downforce on larger tracks (1.5-miles and above). The package allows teams to draft on the bigger tracks, which in turn makes being the first car out a disadvantage.

As a result, drivers have sat in their cars on pit road, waiting until the last possible moment before attempting a qualifying lap. At Auto Club Speedway, none of the 12 drivers in the final round posted an official lap. At Texas, there were other issues as well although each of the 12 in the final round were able to post at least one lap before time expired.

“I think it’s ridiculous, candidly,” O’Donnell said. “I know the drivers did not like this qualifying (format) that we were going to do before the season so part of you says, ‘Are we (teams) doing this on purpose … to get rid of it?’ I know it can be done.”

O Donnell went on to say that NASCAR will “react to it.”

“We’ll make the right call and we’ll get it right,” he said. “We don’t want to see cars sitting on pit road for eight minutes. That’s not NASCAR racing and we’ll make the fix there.”

NASCAR already uses a single-car qualifying format at Daytona and Talladega, the series two largest venues.

O’Donnell is executive vice president and chief racing development officer for NASCAR.

NASCAR officials took six cars from teams, two from each manufacturer, to take to the wind tunnel for aerodynamic evaluation following Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

That’s not surprising. It’s a normal part of the process as officials with the sanctioning body seek a better understanding of how the aero numbers between the three groups match up.

What was something of a surprise was the cars that were selected. Or those that weren’t.

NASCAR selected the No. 1 of Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing) and the No. 24 of William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports) from the Chevrolet camp and that’s about as good of a representation as you’ll get from those folks these days.

Toyota entries taken, however were the No. 19 of Martin Truex Jr., and the No. 20 of Erik Jones. Neither the No. 18 of Kyle Busch, which has two wins this season and could have won a third time Sunday, nor the No. 11 of Hamlin, which did win Sunday and now also has two victories this year, was chosen.

All four cars race out of the Joe Gibbs Racing shop but clearly the 18 and the 11 have been a cut above the others.

Ford entries chose were the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing) and the No. 21 of Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing).

That neither the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski nor 22 of Team Penske teammate Joey Logano was chosen for Ford representation was also puzzling. Even the 12 of teammate Ryan Blaney.

Keselowski and Logano account for the three victories not claimed by Busch or Hamlin this season.

Hamlin’s 33rd career victory tied him with two individuals – Fireball Roberts at No. 23 on the all-time NASCAR win list and Tony Stewart at No. 2 on the JGR win list. Stewart won a pair of Cup titles as well before departing; Hamlin is still seeking his first.

That Hamlin already has two victories says as much about crew chief Chris Gabehart, who replaced Mike Wheeler on top of the pit box for the No. 11 team this season, as it does Hamlin. Gabehart won nine times in the Xfinity Series with drivers Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

The fifth-place finish for Jimmie Johnson Sunday was his first top-five since last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. The seven-time series champion started on the pole and led 60 laps.

Kyle Busch didn’t complete the weekend sweep but the JGR racer did win two of three, capturing Friday night’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race and Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race. It was his 95th Xfinity Series win and 55th in the Truck series.

NASCAR teams head to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend for Saturday’s Alsco 300 Xfinity Series race and Sunday’s Food City 500. The rules package will be the same as that used at Martinsville two weeks ago – 750 horsepower and no aero ducts on the front of the cars.

Only seven active drivers – Kyle and Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Johnson, Logano, Harvick and Hamlin – have won one or more Cup races at BMS. That’s from a list of 22 current competitors with one or more wins in the series.

Kyle Busch has won two of the last three at BMS while Kyle Larson finished second in both Cup races last season. Larson also led 200 laps in the spring race.

It’s a Logano, and a Ford day, at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano will start from the pole Sunday when the STP 500 gets underway here at tiny Martinsville Speedway.

The 28-year-old pushed his No. 22 Team Penske Ford around the .526-mile oval at a speed of 97.83 mph, to nudge fellow ford driver Aric Almirola (97.643 mph) off the top spot in the final round of qualifying for the series’ sixth race of the season.

Logano won here last fall, securing a spot in the Championship 4 where he ultimately won his first Cup championship. He’s already won this season to likely secure a berth in this season’s 16-team playoffs and he finished second a week ago at Auto Club Speedway.

To say he and his team, led by crew chief Todd Gordon, are running well would be an understatement.

But Martinsville, the only track that has hosted NASCAR’s top series since its debut in 1949, has been a bit of a mixed bag for the New England native. Logano has finished in the top 10 in nearly one-half his starts here (nine of 20) but he’s also finished 20th or worse five times.

In qualifying Saturday, he and his team’s efforts were short and sweet … and fast. Logano needed just two laps to land at sixth quickest in the first round and one lap in the second round to remain sixth best. That sent him into the third and final round with remarkably fresh tires.

“That really paid a reward as we got to the third round,” Logano said, noting his team chose not to make any mock qualifying runs during practice. “It’s important to win a pole here – to start up front is obviously safer, but you can also run your (race) pace and (it’s) a safer place on pit road as well.”

Tire conservation in qualifying isn’t exactly the norm at most tracks – but at Martinsville it can be a deciding factor.

“It’s not just one lap like most tracks we go to,” he said, “(where) you lay down one and you’re done. Here, you’ve got to run quite a few laps to be able to lay down a fast one, which makes me run out of breath, by the way. It’s like the most intense qualifying session for me. … We go slower here than anywhere else we go and I’m breathing harder than anywhere else we go, so there must be something to it.”

Ford teams swept the first four spots with Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski third fastest and Kevin Harvick, Almirola’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, fourth.

Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota) was fifth in the final round, after posting the quickest times in the first two rounds.

Logano, who has 22 career wins, hasn’t won a Cup race from the pole since 2016 (at Michigan International Speedway).

No driver has won a Cup race from the pole since Martin Truex captured the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway last summer.

Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson will carry a 64-race winless streak into Sunday’s event. A nine-time winner at Martinsville, Johnson will start 12th.

Kyle Busch could muster only a 14th-best qualifying time for Sunday. Busch, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota in the Cup Series, has won the last two Cup races – at Phoenix and Fontana, Calif.; he also has two wins in the Xfinity Series this season and a win Saturday at Martinsville was his third consecutive Truck Series win.